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The Kurdish Tragedy

The news that Kurds and Arabs are fighting one another in the remote hills of northeastern Iraq has hardly been noticed in the past few months. When the outside world is aware that the Kurds exist at all it classifies them along with those ferocious warrior races which inhabited the outer fringes of the British Raj—Nagas, Pathans, Zulus—as a people so fierce and warlike that the English could never completely subjugate them. Consequently the struggle of the Kurds to be free of the Baathist regime in Iraq is regarded less as the fully fledged war of national liberation which it in fact is, and more as some obscure and archaic tribal uprising. Anti-imperialists in the West find in it none of the heroism, romance, and moral legitimacy which they admire in more fashionable liberation struggles in Vietnam, Cuba, Angola, and Mozambique. The Kurds have few friends.

Yet by any standard of justice the Kurds deserve support and admiration. Contrary to the accepted mythology the Kurds are a proud, generous, and chivalrous people with a civilization which has endured for over two thousand years. Like the Vietnamese, they have had to fight for centuries to preserve their identity against the encroachments of more powerful neighbors, and also like the Vietnamese, they have been fighting for decades rather than for months or years. Moreover theirs is a true people’s war; no Kurdish army is kept afloat with huge infusions of outside arms and money, watched over by hordes of foreign “advisers.” There is only a militia made up of farmers and herdsmen, existing on subsistence wages, fighting with a motley array of antiquated weapons either scrounged from the European secondhand arms market or supplied, with some reluctance, by the Iranians.

The ethnic origins of the Kurds are uncertain. Usually they are classified as “Western Iranians,” and in speech, customs, and appearance they are closer to the Persians than to either the Arabs or the Turks. In religion they are Sunni Moslems and are regarded as among the most orthodox in the Islamic world. Kurdish tribes have inhabited the mountain ranges of eastern Turkey, northwest Persia, and northeast Iraq since at least the second century BC, and today the total Kurdish population of about seven million is spread among five countries: 3.2 million in Turkey, 1.8 million in Iran, 1.5 million in Iraq, 320,000 in Syria, and 80,000 in the USSR. Traditionally the Kurds have been nomads, living throughout the year in black tents, moving their herds in a constant search for new grazing lands, but since World War I an increasing number have turned to conventional farming.

Geography has shaped Kurdish society: the wild and mountainous terrain of Kurdistan, the barrenness of the soil, the poor communications, and the remoteness of towns and villages from one another—these have prevented the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of any single ruler or class, and they have guaranteed instead that power should be spread among a large number of competing tribes and villages. Thus until the rise of General Mustafa Barzani sixteen years ago, there had never been a Kurdish leader capable of unifying the Kurds; there was no Kurdish aristocracy owning vast estates and employing entire villages of Kurdish peasants, no Kurdish religious hierarchy using the secular power of the state to enforce a strict orthodoxy upon the mass of the faithful.

The absence of these traditional elite groups accounts in part for the extraordinary resilience of the Kurdish people, their capacity to fight year after year against much stronger opponents. The egalitarianism of Kurdish society has preserved for the individual Kurdish farmer and herdsman a degree of personal liberty and freedom from oppression rare in traditional Middle Eastern societies. Whenever the Kurdish peasant has fought the foreign invader—whether Turk, Arab, or Persian—he has therefore been fighting more to defend his own interests than to uphold the supremacy of some distant monarch or feudal magnate. For that reason he has been willing to fight hard and long.

But geography has also weakened the Kurds; they have long ago had to abandon hope of ever being able to join together the three divided regions of Kurdistan in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. They have also had to accept that these regions have neither the resources nor the population to survive on their own as independent sovereign states. The Kurds therefore have asked not for complete independence but only for “autonomy” or “self-government”: the Kurdish regions would remain part of Iraq or Persia, and the Kurds would contribute to their defense of these states. But within the regions themselves the Kurds would be free to run their own affairs with little interference from the central government.

Yet in pursuit of these limited goals the Kurds have fought as hard and as long as any other people on earth. Throughout the past fifty years the Kurds have rebelled whenever political instability at the center has forced the Turks, the Iraqis, or the Persians to relax their grip on the outlying Kurdish areas. There were Kurdish rebellions in eastern Anatolia following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and in Persia following the overthrow of the Qajar dynasty in 1921. There were more Kurdish rebellions during and immediately after World War II. In 1946 the Kurds of Persia rebelled after the authority of the central Persian government had been wiped out by the occupying Allied powers; the Kurds of Iraq rose after British authority had been challenged by the pro-Axis regime of Rashid Ali. The most recent Kurdish revolt took place after the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in July, 1958, by General Abdul Karim Kassem.

With the single exception of the 1958 uprising in Iraq every one of these rebellions failed. In each case the Kurds were defeated as much by their own weakness as by the strength of their opponents. These Kurdish rebellions were carried out by a loosely knit collection of independent tribes; for every tribe that joined the rebellions there was among its neighbors a rival tribe that would either remain neutral or even support the enemy. There was no Kurdish army with a centralized command but only an assortment of tribal militia usually acting independently of one another. Although the Kurds always fought bravely they were hopelessly compromised by their own disunity and lack of discipline.

While previous Kurdish revolts were put down within months, the 1958 uprising has lasted sixteen years, and the independence which the Kurds seized for themselves during the first days of the Iraq Republic they still possess. Every Iraqi effort to deprive them of it, whether by force, diplomacy, or assassination, has been thwarted. What accounts for this success has been the leadership of Mullah Mustafa Barzani,1 a venerable Kurdish chieftain and warrior from the northernmost hills of Iraqi Kurdistan. Among the Kurds Barzani is already a legendary figure, a Kurdish Mao. He has been fighting for Kurdish independence for fifty years—against the British and the Turks during the 1920s, against the Iraqis and the Persians after World War II, and against the Iraqis alone since 1958. After the defeat of the Persian Kurds in 1946 he led 800 followers on a long march through the mountains of Persia and Turkey, finally reaching Soviet Armenia where he was given refuge for twelve years. In 1958 he returned to Iraq.

Barzani was one of the few Kurdish tribal leaders who understood that the tribal system itself and the disunity which it engendered had been a major cause of past Kurdish defeats. On returning to Iraq he set out to create a central military and political authority which, under his direction, would control the Kurdish war effort in all regions. This task was made easier by a basic change in the political atmosphere which had taken place during his exile. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Kurdish nationalism, as an ideology demanding loyalty to a political entity above and beyond the tribe, was a faith limited to a few detribalized Kurds who had left the hills and migrated to the cities. But the rise of Arab nationalism during the late 1940s and 1950s led directly to a corresponding growth of nationalistic feeling among the Kurds. Arab nationalism was for them a racist ideology which seemed to justify the suppression of all non-Arab minorities, the Kurds foremost among them. As Arab nationalism swept through the Middle East, the Kurds took refuge in an ethnocentric nationalism of their own.

The strength of this nationalism endowed Barzani with a new mystique. Before he had been regarded only as the most renowned among several famous tribal warriors, now he was acknowledged as the rightful leader of all the tribes, the symbol of Kurdish independence. He first set about creating a regular Kurdish army from among his new followers; and when this force was joined with the tribal units which had always been loyal to him, their combined strength was greater than that of any other Kurdish force. Step by step he was able to extend his authority. Some tribal leaders joined him willingly, others supported him from fear of what would happen if they did not, others resisted and were overwhelmed. By 1964 he was supreme.

At first the new Iraqi military regime led by General Abdul Karim Kassem tried to conciliate Barzani. Kassem believed that with a “progressive” and “socialist” regime installed in Baghdad the rationale for further Kurdish dissidence would soon be removed, and that the regime had only to reveal its good intentions and all would be well. But when it became clear that the Kurds would accept nothing less than complete autonomy, the junta reacted as all previous Iraqi regimes had done—whether Ottoman, British, or Hashemite. In late 1961 the Iraqi army invaded Kurdish territory, confident that its campaign would be over within weeks. In fact the Kurdish war lasted nine years.

Every one of the Iraqi army’s campaigns during these years followed the same overambitious strategy, and every one failed. Two or three Iraqi divisions, with Soviet-supplied tanks, artillery, and aircraft in support, would strike out from the plains of northern Iraq, cross the Kurdish foothills, and head toward Barzani’s sanctuaries located high in the mountain ranges along the Persian and Turkish frontiers. The Kurds would offer only token resistance, luring the Iraqis further into their territory. Eventually an overconfident Iraqi brigade would advance into some deep and narrow valley, and the Kurdish units would swoop down, block its line of retreat, cut it off from its supply base, and slowly destroy it. News of this catastrophe would quickly reach other Iraqi units, and they would retreat lest they suffer the same fate.

After enduring such defeats through nine long years the Iraqis gave up. In March, 1970, they negotiated a ceasefire with the Kurds which left Barzani in control of most of Kurdistan and which also acknowledged his de facto authority in Kurdish areas previously under Iraqi military occupation. This was as much an act of political self-preservation as one of military prudence. By 1970 three Iraqi regimes, including Kassem’s, had fallen after being defeated by the Kurds. The Baathists who came to power in 1970 were holding on only by employing such well-tried Iraqi methods as secret trials, political assassinations, public hangings, kidnapings, and murders. A further setback in Kurdistan and such a grisly fate might have been theirs too.

Having abandoned hope of resolving the Kurdish problem by brute force, the Iraqis then resorted to the traditional colonialist stratagem of divide and rule. With the end of the war the civilian wing of the Baath party came to have an increasing influence on Kurdish policy. Some within this faction believed that the Kurdish independence movement was less monolithic than it appeared and that many Kurds who resented Barzani’s supremacy would be willing to accept a definition of Kurdish autonomy less drastic than Barzani’s own. The civilian Baathists hoped that these supposed dissidents could somehow be transformed into allies of the regime.

The Baathists’ new strategy was embodied in a series of proposals for Kurdish autonomy which was announced at the time of the cease-fire. The Iraqis promised that the Kurds would enjoy self-government within an “Autonomous Kurdish Region”; there would be a Kurdish executive council with an elected president, and below it a legislative council, also elected. In the early days of the cease-fire the Kurds assumed, reasonably enough, that these institutions would have jurisdiction over most local government questions. But as detailed negotiations got underway during 1971-1972 it became clear that the Iraqis were intent on giving away as little as possible and on keeping control of industry, regional planning and irrigation, security, local police, and justice. The members of the Kurdish assemblies as well as the Kurdish president of the executive council were to be nominated by the president of Iraq, and if the Kurds refused to confirm two of his nominees for executive president, he had the right to dissolve the Kurdish assemblies and choose new members.

Nonetheless the Baathists hoped that this plan would somehow appeal to the Kurdish dissidents, and in order to give themselves plenty of time to win over these potential allies, they decided that there should be a four-year interim period before the plan was to be put into effect. This four-year period came to an end in March, and long before that deadline was reached it was clear that the strategy of divide and rule had failed. The dissidents on whom the Iraqis had counted so heavily never materialized. Although there are educated Kurds who aspire to a more modern and democratic form of rule than Barzani’s paternalist leadership, they are willing to submerge their differences in the interests of unity. Indeed as Iraqi-Kurdish relations deteriorated during the last half of March, an estimated 100,000 Kurds—including 4,000 teachers, 300 engineers, 100 doctors—left their jobs in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities and joined Barzani in the mountains. They rejected the Iraqi plan in part because it granted the Kurds so little, in part because they mistrusted the regime itself. Since Baathist rule had always been cruel, arbitrary, and above all lawless, what reason was there to suppose that the regime would behave any differently toward the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan?

Negotiations between the two sides broke down at the beginning of March and for a month it was not clear what the Iraqis were going to do. They were under some pressure to do nothing. The Soviet Union in particular was concerned that a new Kurdish war would sooner or later be followed by the downfall of the regime. In late March Defense Minister Grechko visited Baghdad to advise caution. There is also evidence that Grechko was supported by some civilian members of the Baath politbureau. However the hardliners prevailed. In mid-April the Iraqis resumed the war. Seven Iraqi divisions, including two armored divisions, supported by 200 bombers and fighter bombers, invaded Kurdish territory in three directions. Their first aim was to secure the main roads which link the largest towns, their second to isolate and destroy the Kurdish forces by occupying key valleys and mountain passes. Although the Iraqi campaign is still in its early stages, there are already signs that it will end in the same way as all of its predecessors. The Iraqi divisions are now strung out along the main roads, tied down by Kurdish guerrillas who are harassing them on both flanks. The Iraqis have at least twice ventured away from the roads and have tried to occupy the mountain passes. Each time they were thrown back with heavy losses of equipment and men.

Like the US army in Vietnam the Iraqis are trying desperately to make up for their inferior fighting ability by a brutal and indiscriminate use of fire power. Armed with the latest Soviet tanks, bombers, and fighter bombers, the Iraqis have been able to devastate the Kurdish countryside: over 200 villages and all the major Kurdish towns have been shelled or bombed with napalm, irrespective of whether they contained military targets or not. The Iraqis have been destroying the crops and livestock of the Kurds in the hope of starving them into submission. On May 1, the Kurdish town of Zakho suffered the fate of My Lai: occupying Iraqi troops went berserk and shot at everything that moved. Sixty-three persons, mostly women and children, were killed, over 150 injured. In a single month of fighting some 80,000 Kurdish refugees have crossed into Iran, 1,100 civilians have been killed, about 3,000 injured.2

The Kurds are confident that they can hold off the Iraqis indefinitely, and the longer the Iraqi army remains bogged down along the roads of Kurdistan the more likely it will become that the present Baathist leadership will be overthrown by a rival clique in the party or the army. The Kurds pray for such a coup d’état on the grounds that it might bring to power a more moderate and conciliatory leadership willing at last to grant them real self-government. The evidence of the last fifty years suggests that these hopes are unrealistic: all past Iraqi regimes, whether leftist or rightist, civilian or military, nationalist or Pan Arab, have been determined to resist Kurdish demands. Only the tactics employed have differed. There is no reason to believe that any future regime would behave differently. So it may well be that the Kurdish problem, like the problem of Indochina, is beyond solution and that the Kurdish people are condemned to live under an eternal threat of war.

  1. 1

    Mullah” here is a given name rather than a religious title.

  2. 2

    For eyewitness accounts of Iraqi bombing against defenseless Kurdish towns see David Hirst, The Guardian (London), May 7, 9, 1974. See also Romain La Bourgarie, Le Monde, May 25, 1974.

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